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Youngberg, Renae "Ray"

By Joyce M. Smith

Renae YoungbergRenea Audrey Youngberg, or "Ray" as she was called in the AAGPBL, was born on April 3, 1933, in Waukegan, Illinois, to first and second generation Swedish immigrants. Her earliest recollections of involvement in baseball go back to the second grade and the years before Little League when the neighborhood kids of all ages -- grade school through high school -- made their own diamond on an empty lot. Rocks, errant pieces of cardboard, and sometimes even the littlest kids who were told not to move on pain of death, served as bases or "safe" places. Gradually the littlest kids grew to player size, and the diamond acquired regular, enduring bases.

Big kids were, naturally, the captains when teams were chosen, and a very formal process was used to ensure fairness. Captains agreed whether they were "Home" or "Visitor." Home threw a bat, which Visitor grabbed in midair. Home then grasped the bat above Visitor's hand, followed by Visitor grabbing the next hand full of bat above Home's hand. A watchful group of Players adjudicated making sure that with each new hand-hold fists were smashed together so as to take up as little room on the neck of the bat as possible. When the hand over hand process brought the captains to the knob on the handle of the bat, the last person to grasp was entitled to "Chicken Claws," a grip on the knob itself. Then, as the captain grasped the knob and held the bat at arms's length, the other captain was allowed three kicks to knock the bat from the holder's hand. If the bat was held firmly, the bat holder got "first pick." If the bat was kicked away, the kicker chose first.

Regardless of who was the captain, and regardless of her size, Renae was always selected high in the draft for these vacant lot games. She could throw the ball with accuracy, she stopped whatever came her way, and she knew the rules. She loved the game and could not get enough of it. If there was a bat and a ball, of whatever size, Renae was sure to be somewhere around.

In 1944, Youngberg was living in the Minneapolis area and she heard about a women's team called the Minneapolis Millerettes. Unfortunately, they were around for less than a season. When she moved back to Waukegan with her mother in 1947, she encountered the All-American League again because the Comets were playing at Kenosha, fewer than twenty miles up the road from Waukegan, a short ride on the North Shore, the inter-urban train that ran between Chicago and Milwaukee. It was not long before Renae traded in her hero, Chicago Cubs outfielder Andy Pafko, for the people who would remain her heroes for the rest of her life: the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

In the 1940s there were few organized sports for young people. Park districts did make facilities available, but for the most part, kids, teens, and young adults were expected to entertain themselves, organize their own games, stay out of trouble, and grow up to emulate the responsible adults around them. Renae and her friends did just that. They formed a team called the "Hit and Miss," consisting of young women who would play either baseball or softball as the opportunity presented itself, played pickup games against teams from southeastern Wisconsin, honed their playing skills under the tutelage of Coach Taylor and his son, and stayed out of trouble. Youngberg and four other players went on to play professional baseball in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The others were Donna Becker, pitcher, Kenosha Comets, Barbara Galdonik, outfield, Kenosha Comets, Joan Holderness, Kenosha Comets bat girl and, later, utility player for the Comets and Grand Rapids Chicks, and Eunice Taylor (daughter of the coach), catcher, Kenosha Comets.

When they were not "scrounging" up games against other teams, the girls of "Hit and Miss" haunted Simmons Field, home of the Kenosha Comets. Eventually they became part of the Junior Comets, a loosely organized collection of kids who were divided up into teams, each of which was coached by a Comets' player. They were allowed to use the field for practice when it was not otherwise in use. Occasionally they played a game. Teams took on the name of the coach so that the game might be called "Cione's against Wagner's -- Jean Cione, pitcher for the Comets and Audrey Wagner, the All Star outfielder -- or "Villa's vs. Brumfield's" -- for Marge Villa and Dottie Brumfield. The professional players gave coaching points freely and provided an opportunity for their young charges to spend time in the company of their heroes and role models.

In 1948 the AAGPBL attempted to improve its scouting techniques and experimented with "tryout schools" run by John Rawlings in California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. From January to March of 1949 the League conducted an instructional school for young players from the Chicago to Milwaukee area. Under the direction of Leonard Zintak, Director of Schools and Tryouts for the AAGPBL Management Corporation, players met each Sunday afternoon in Chicago parochial school gymnasium where they demonstrated their skill and received coaching. "Book" was kept on the young prospects, using a scouting point system, and at the end of the winter session those who scored highly were invited to AAGPBL spring training. Renae did not find out about the school until the end of February and was able to attend only three sessions, not enough to earn her a spring training berth, but sufficient to get her a position as spring wore on and the school year drew to a close on Rayson Sporting Goods, a Chicago baseball team coached by Mitch Skupien who later became an AAGPBL manager. She had played with Rayson's for only three weeks when Skupien was contacted by Zintak who was managing the Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies on their exhibition tour in the Midwest, South, and East. He needed a fielder. Without hesitation, Skupien recommended Renae Youngberg, third sacker. Renae's professional baseball career was launched.

She joined the tour at Ardmore, Oklahoma, on July 1, 1949, and for the next sixty-six days spent her time playing on ball fields in towns she had never heard of before, languishing in foreign hotel or motel rooms on rain out days, or looking out the window into darkness -- too keyed up to sleep -- on the bus that took her and the rest of the Springfield Sallies to the next stop in the itinerary of thirty-one tour cities. It was an incredibly exciting, yet exhausting journey for the sixteen-year-old who found too much to see to close her eyes in sleep for very long.

As Renae has described it:

"After I played with Rayson's briefly, I got a letter from Max Carney, president of the AAGPBL, asking me to sign with the Springfield Sallies, a team that the Chicago Colleens was on tour with across the country. I found out later that the tour was directed by Lennie Zintak, the league advance man who was charged with player development for the All-Americans. I boarded a train at Union Station in Chicago, and after traveling all night, charged with excitement, not sleeping, and watching the future rush at me through the shadows cast on the railroad grade, I arrived at Ardmore, OK, in the early hours of the morning. A kind lady gave me a ride from the railroad station to the hotel where I had to wait on a hard bench in the lobby while the hands on the hotel clock ground away the hours toward my future. It couldn't get light soon enough for me. I was exhausted, but bursting with anticipation. Finally, the chaperons, well-groomed and rested, appeared, took me in tow, made sure I knew the rules, and helped me get settled. My baseball career had begun; I was finally going to be able to do what I had always dreamed about -- play ball with the pros."

"Although the field coaches and chaperons were Barbara Liebrich and Patricia Barringer, former AAGPBL players, Lennie Lintak was the manager of both touring teams, and because players might be called up at any time, it was Zintak's job to get us ready to play in the League. He spared no effort in that regard. If a player made an error in judgement, or had a lapse in performing the basic fundamentals of the game during one of our exhibitions, he would call a practice for the next day prior to game time and drill us into exhaustion. During one game, a player did a head first slide into a base and was tagged out. If she had done a hook slide, she probably would have been safe. The next day Zintak had us in the ballroom of a hotel in Virginia practicing hook slides, barefooted, in shorts on the dance floor. I was lucky! I did it the first time. Those who didn't, had to keep at it until they got it right. You should have seen some of the 'strawberries.' "

School resumed in September and with its advent the baseball spikes and glove were exchanged for a basketball and gym shoes, but the tour had taken its toll. In December, the Lake County Health Department made its regular sweep of the school, checking for cases of active tuberculosis, and Renae, who had previously shown a positive reaction to a skin test, had a chest x-ray. On Friday, January 13, the county visiting nurse knocked on the door at Renae's mother's apartment to announce that Renae had a confirmed case of TB. There was a lesion the size of a quarter in her right lung. On January 17, 1950, she entered the Lake County Tuberculosis Sanatorium where she was hospitalized for the next six months. Towards the end of that six month period, her doctor, a progressive fellow for the time, performed a pneumothorax, a treatment which injects air into the chest cavity collapsing a portion of the lung. Medical studies showed that with the lung at rest the lesion had a better chance of healing, and unless it healed, hemorrhage was always a possibility. She was released from the TB sanatorium and allowed to resume some of her activities in late June. Baseball was not among them, however, so she missed the 1950 AAGPBL season.

Renea Audrey YoungbergWhen the spring of 1951 rolled around, even though her lung remained deflated by the pneumothorax, Renae received permission from her doctor to resume playing ball. She went to spring training in Battle Creek, MI, where she proved that neither an accident of illness nor the enforced time off could quiet her ardor for the game or impair her skills. Mitch Skupien, her old coach and supporter, now managing Grand Rapids, invited her to tryouts for the Chicks. She passed the test and spent the next four years, with two brief exceptions when she was loaned to other clubs, at third base for the Grand Rapids team, one and a half of those seasons with a collapsed lung. The summer of 1951 was a seasoning year for her at third base, but by the time she returned to Grand Rapids from college in 1952 the Grand Rapids Herald shouted with relief in a caption showing a picture of Youngberg at work, "THAT OPENING'S PLUGGED!" Renae had come into her own at the hot corner.

Renae's salary as a ball player, combined with an academic scholarship she received from the State of Illinois, financed her education at Illinois State University where she majored in physical education. Following her graduation in 1955, she spent the next thirty and one-half years as a teacher and coach in the Kalamazoo, Michigan, public schools. She earned a Master's degree in counseling in 1961. She was the first in her family to complete a college education.

Renae believes that much of her success in life can be attributed to the AAGPBL and the experiences the League gave her. When her life was disrupted by her parent's divorce, forcing her to move from relative to relative for a place to sleep, the Junior Comets and her heroes were there teaching her about coming back from adversity and trying again. When her self-esteem lagged, the Springfield Sallies showed her that she was a winner. When the TB sanatorium closed in on her, the lure of the All-American League stood outside the door, urging her to get well and beckoning her to hurry because she was needed. When she put on the uniform of the Grand Rapids Chicks, her teammates, by example, taught her that independence and self-confidence grow from teamwork.

Renae's involvement with the AAGPBL lasted six years, five of them professional playing years -- a relatively short time in the context of the years allocated to her in life -- but the lessons that came out of that period have endured and have sustained her, both personally and professionally.

Renae is retired and divides her time between a lake home in Portage, Michigan and a mobile home close to Charlotte Harbor in Placida, FL.

Acknowledgment:Biographical data supplied by Renae Audrey Youngberg, 7/99; prepared by Joyce M. Smith and submitted to the AAGPBL web site 7/99.

Contributed by: Joyce M. Smith
Submitted on: 07/25/1999

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